Speaking Out

Jon Leiberman, once Sinclair's golden boy, finds himself out of work after questioning his employer.

October 20, 2004|By David Folkenflik and Stephen Kiehl | David Folkenflik and Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

Jon Leiberman's world turned upside down yesterday. A man used to asking tough questions found himself answering them. A man used to covering the news found himself making the news.

On Monday, Leiberman was fired from his post as Sinclair Broadcast Group's Washington bureau chief for criticizing as biased his company's decision to air a controversial news program based on allegations against Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee.

The comments brought national attention to the Westminster native who has wanted to be on television and in the spotlight since age 4. Now he is 29 and out of a job, after his remarks were published in The Sun. Leiberman said he finally spoke out after a painful, months-long journey of disillusionment with an employer that he said has strayed far from objective reporting.

"It was the daily struggle to get fair news on the air," he said. "I've been raising red flags for months. I didn't just fly off the handle. ... This is an agonizing process."

The Maryland-based corporation owns or operates 62 stations in 39 markets that reach about 24 percent of the American viewing public. In creating a centralized newscast for many of its stations, produced at its Hunt Valley headquarters, Sinclair sought a new tone to distinguish it from many of its local competitors. It was flashy and fast-paced. It was edgy.

But Leiberman said that tone took on a clear ideological bent, and it came directly from CEO David D. Smith and vice president and editorialist Mark Hyman: Stories had to be positive for conservatives and Republicans, he said, and negative for Democrats and liberals.

Last weekend, Sinclair executives began finalizing plans to air an hourlong special built around charges that Kerry's anti-war activism had led to the prolonged torture of U.S. prisoners of war by their North Vietnamese captors. After months of internal protest, Leiberman spoke out.

"I didn't do this for attention,"he said. "I didn't do this for my 10 minutes, because I know that in a week from now this will all be gone - all the attention - and I'll still have to live with my decision. I think I can do that."

Messages left yesterday for four top Sinclair executives were not returned. But earlier in the week, Hyman called Leiberman a "disgruntled" employee who had violated company policy by criticizing Sinclair publicly and revealing its editorial processes.

Yesterday, Sinclair announced that it will air the program on one station per market; that means 40 of the company's stations will show the program. Sinclair said the special will focus in part on the role of documentary films in this year's election, in addition to allegations against Kerry.

In a statement yesterday, the company's vice president for news, Joseph DeFeo, defended the program: "We are endeavoring, as we do with all of our news coverage, to present both sides of the issues covered in an equal and impartial manner."

Smith said in the same statement: "We cannot in a free America yield to the misguided attempts by a small but vocal minority to influence behavior and trample on the First Amendment rights of those with whom they might not agree."

Over the course of a 45-minute lunch in Baltimore yesterday, Leiberman's cell phone rang five times - but no job offers yet. Reporters and producers were looking to put him on the air to talk about his decision. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, and several local radio and television stations.

He also heard from his wife, Michele, a producer at WBAL-TV in Baltimore. She urged him to get hot tea and throat lozenges and told him, "If you lose your voice, you won't be able to get your message out."

An early start

Leiberman, an Owings Mills resident, learned how to get his message out a long time ago. When he was 4, his family would go to Sunday brunch at Baugher's Restaurant in Westminster. A precocious child, Leiberman would read the sports section to the diners. He loved being the deliverer of news, and he loved the attention.

In elementary school, he read the weather report over the public address system every morning. He was president of his class at Westminster High School and he interned at the local cable channel. While a student at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., he interned for CNBC. He later worked at local stations in Topeka, Kan., and Albuquerque, N.M., before returning to Baltimore in the summer of 2000. He quickly made his mark as an investigative reporter and last year was made chief of Sinclair's Washington bureau.

"In terms of being diligent about getting things right, he stood out early in his career," said Ava Greenwell, an associate journalism professor at Northwestern who is still in touch with Leiberman. She said his stand this week took courage, especially in an industry where young reporters are most concerned with their careers. "It's a hard decision to make when you're in his position."

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